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OPINION: Justice in the climate negotiations – and in the real world

The Paris climate change agreement was broadly viewed as a successful outcome by international climate negotiators. But although nations adopted an ambitious goal to keep average global temperatures well below a 2 degree rise and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible, issues of climate justice – why less developed countries should suffer from the emissions of more developed countries – have never been resolved. Ari Huhtala reflects on a recent meeting, which looked at climate justice afresh.

Historical responsibility by early emitters, increasingly severe impact of climate change on developing countries, and mounting pressure for all to take mitigation action remain causes of tension in the post-Paris negotiations. The challenge is to find ways of recognising historical responsibility, while increasing solidarity in the face of climate impacts and facilitating ambitious climate action globally.

This tension and challenge was the theme of a workshop titled “Balancing responsibility and solidarity in international climate negotiations” organised by Climate Strategies and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Brussels last week. The purpose was to unpack the Paris Agreement from the justice angle. There was clearly more scepticism in the air that in other post-Paris discussions that I have attended recently.

I have written earlier about climate justice, but more from the point of view of those affected and having to face its consequences at the livelihoods level. By contrast, this event brought me into the middle of the complex world of diplomacy. Any debate on equity and justice is bound to be divisive and that is also the case when it relates to climate change. How to balance moral, emotional and relational questions with economic and political interests, and how to bring generosity and trust into the mix?

The speakers came from think tanks, academia and the community of climate negotiators. The discussion reminded me that achieving climate justice is not possible without ensuring that it happens both at the global and national levels, bottom-up and top-down, engaging government and the civil society. There is untapped potential for encouraging a stocktake of both global and national performance through an equity lens. National level leaders should be made accountable for the delivery of NDCs (Editor’s note: Nationally Determined Contributions, the climate plans that countries submitted to the UNFCCC in advance of the Paris conference).

The UNFCCC process can learn something from the experience of transitional justice which was introduced by an interesting working paper by Sonia Klinsky, entitled “Transitional Justice in the Climate Context?”. The paper starts from the premise that climate change is not the only time humans have been faced with challenges for historically rooted, collective action involving justice disputes. A range of transitional justice processes have emerged in many countries, and the goal of these processes has been to recognise and at least partially remedy past injustices while also building a sense of unity and solidarity. Although climate change differs in important ways from traditional transitional justice contexts, there may be ways of using some of the common practices to inform international climate negotiations (see the paper for details).

You cannot avoid talking about past responsibility, but equally you cannot expect to achieve effective implementation (and the necessary increase in ambition) of the Paris Agreement without engaging the full spectrum of contributors to increasing emissions. This should not erode the focus on dealing with the impact of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable. The process is about the past and the future. The process “Evaluating peace and reconciliation to address historical responsibility within international climate negotiations”, driven by Climate Strategies, is a helpful journey towards policy proposals, but it is a long one and the workshop agreed that we have not reached our destination yet.


Image: displaced children seek freshwater after a flood, credit UN Photo.

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